In the early 18th century the Kangxi emperor of China commissioned a summer retreat to be built to accommodate an elaborate water garden. Encrusted with statues representing the Chinese zodiac, the fountain was a symbol of prosperity.
Its destruction in 1860 by French and British troops exemplified China’s downward spiral out of opulence for the next 100 years. Eventually some of the zodiac heads resurfaced, many of them on the auction block. Four have yet to turn up, which inspired today’s famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei to rebuild this powerful symbol of national pride with all 12 figures.
Ai’s Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads is now positioned on the National Museum of Wildlife Art Sculpture Walk, turned so the viewer can admire his or her own sign standing majestic over the National Elk Refuge.
Although Ai’s may not the biggest show in the museum’s history, Marketing Director Jennifer Weydeveld said it is remarkably important.
“The exhibition has only been in major urban areas,” she said. “New York, London. So for Jackson to get it, we’re just thrilled.”
On Thursday a Mix’d Media event will allow viewers a sunset tour of the heads along with music and Chinese food and beverages. It also will offer a chance to dig deeper into the importance of the traveling exhibition.
The idea is to bring a new demographic into this side of Jackson’s culture.
“The overall theme of Mix’d Media is on selected second Thursdays of each month to entice younger audiences with food and drink and art-making projects,” Weydeveld said.
The Mix’d Media event will highlight the Zodiac Heads and their importance. The majority of the evening will be spent outside, Associate Director of Programs and Events Amy Goicoechea said. Valley residents who have been particularly moved by the work will offer short tours during which they will talk about their take on the art, and DJ Jefe and Mr. Whipple will spin music in the porte cochere.
Susie Ibarra’s musical composition “Mirrors and Water,” commissioned specifically to play over speakers set up near Ai’s sculptures, will be aired later than usual.
“It is usually turned off by 5 p.m.,” Goicoechea said. “It’s a real enhancement to that space as the sun sets.”
Ibarra recorded sounds representing the 12 creatures from the zodiac and laid them onto a percussion backdrop accented by a Chinese lute. The piece plays for 11 minutes but does not follow the order of the zodiacs. Instead it allows the listener to guess when rams are braying or dragons are dueling.
“It was really trying to be sensitive to all the moving parts,” Ibarra said. “The story is artistically random.”
As with every Mix’d Media, attendees will also be able to craft their own work inspired by the ongoing exhibition.
“Those guests who want to make their own fortune cookie can create a fortune cookie out of clay but also write a fortune inside of that before they close that up,” Goicoechea said.
Inside the museum a short film will offer additional background on Ai, his work and why he was inspired to help return the zodiac heads to the public.
While the events are always free to members, Thursday night is free and open to the entire public.
The artist will not be able to attend because the Chinese government does not allow him to leave the country.